Calder v. Bull

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In Calder v. Bull, 3 U.S. 386 (1798), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a state law that enabled a party to obtain a new hearing in a dispute over a will against an argument that the state law was unconstitutional under the Ex Post Facto Clause.

The Court held that the only ex post facto laws prohibited by the U.S. Constitution are those relating to crimes which:

  • converted an innocent action done before the passing of the law into crime;
  • aggravated a crime relative to when it was committed
  • imposed a greater punishment than the law imposed when the crime was committed
  • changed the legal rules of evidence to allow less, or different, testimony than the law required when the crime was committed in order to obtain a conviction.

The opinion, written for the Court by Justice Samuel Chase, is best known for his list of unacceptable legislative acts, which includes taking property from one private owner to given it to another private owner:

"A law that punished a citizen for an innocent action, or, in other words, for an act, which, when done, was in violation of no existing law; a law that destroys, or impairs, the lawful private contracts of citizens; a law that makes a man a Judge in his own cause; or a law that takes property from A. and gives it to B: It is against all reason and justice, for a people to entrust a Legislature with SUCH powers; and, therefore, it cannot be presumed that they have done it.